BY NIBRAS KAZIMI
May 31, 2006
Mahmoud would merely register as a statistical blip on a population chart somewhere, but this make-believe character - a 15 year-old, upper-middle-class Egyptian that I constructed in my head - is going to matter a great deal in a decade's time. He may be the next president of Egypt, or he may turn out to be a suicide bomber.
In the last couple of weeks, policy has perceptibly shifted in Washington. While the Bush administration claims that it is sticking to the "democracy in the Middle East equals stability" talking points, its actions indicate otherwise. Even though Mahmoud has not fully absorbed the implications, those changes will play an important role in forming his political consciousness. In fact, they may map out his trajectory from teenager to murderous fireball.
First things first, keep in mind that there are more teenagers carrying the generically Muslim name of Mahmoud than had ever existed throughout Islamic history. Our Mahmoud is one among many millions in this massive demographic wave, and here is a sketch of his fictional past, present, and potential.
By Egyptian standards, Mahmoud's family is well off. They live in a concrete high-rise rising out of the Muhandiseen neighborhood, and occupy a well proportioned apartment. It is a good place as any in Cairo to raise a family. There is plenty of fun and distraction for Mahmoud and his coterie of buddies at the private school that he attends. Their command of foreign languages is pretty good, and that opens them up to worlds far beyond their own through the Internet and satellite TV. They sing along to Arctic Monkeys hits, and watch pirated copies of the hit show "Lost" on their DVD players. But they don't need to go very far to exercise teenage curiosities; the Arabic music channels can go head to head with anything MTV dishes out by way of what his teachers at school would call depravity.
His father is a physician, like his father before him. Mahmoud's grandfather hailed from a village somewhere in Upper Egypt, and was the first among his family to enroll in one of the state's secular public schools, surmounting the qualms of his own father, who acted as the local Muslim religious sheikh. But the grandfather went on to earn a state scholarship to France, and came back to Egypt as one of those starry-eyed nationalists eager to make something grand of their country. After a couple of false starts and messy riots, Mahmoud's grandfather hoped that Egypt's rebirth would happen in his son's life. Mahmoud's father has resigned himself to placing similar hopes on Mahmoud.
In the last couple of years, Mahmoud had seen his father attend Friday prayers more regularly. Even his mother decided to put on the hijab last year, finally caving in to peer pressure at the government ministry where she works as an archivist, all the while rationalizing her move as finding no conflict between religiosity and progressiveness. When Mahmoud looks through family albums of his mom and dad in the 1970s, he is amused by their bellbottoms and attire of the era.
His older brother graduated as an engineer a couple of years back, but still can't find a job. He passes his time at a nearby cafe smoking a water pipe and commiserating with his friends over how some other classmates bribed their way to better grades and had uncles with some pull in the system. His sister, a pharmacist by training, is similarly unemployed and sits at home moping around for something to do until the love of her life lands a job and puts down an advance on an apartment - necessary steps before there can be any talk of marriage.
Lately, Mahmoud is more mindful of the fact that his family is not keeping up appearances. His cell phone is a 3 year-old hand-me-down that doesn't even have a camera. He begged for an iPod for his birthday, but got a couple of shirts instead. The family car is a decade old, and his father doesn't seem to be getting ahead at the government-run hospital where he works. Meanwhile, his schoolmates whose fathers are National Party big shots or well-connected businessmen are showing off their brand new PSPs.
He overheard his parents talking last September about voting for Ayman Nour, the opposition candidate. But Nour is now in prison and the Great Leader's son and projected heir, Jamal, seems to have been anointed as the heir apparent by the White House during a recent visit. Mahmoud caught part of a program on Aljazeera last week that gleefully declared that President Bush has betrayed the liberals and democrats in the Middle East. His father, who had been watching the same show, made up his mind to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood in the next election - if there is another election.
On the school bus, everyone turned around to take stock of a huge armored anti-riot truck, probably paid for by American taxpayer money. But somebody dismissively said "big deal" and whipped out his cell phone to show everyone footage of a Humvee being blown to bits in Iraq; so much for American armor. Another kid boasted that his cousins live in the same apartment building where Muhammad Atta, the September 11 terrorist, grew up.
Then the guy with the cell phone made them listen to a song about the resistance in Fallouja. Mahmoud couldn't make out all the words, but there was something in there about "Israel" and the crusades, as well as Arab honor. He hears these words a lot in religion class from his teachers and conjugates verbs with them in Arabic grammar exercises. Something about those words struck a nerve, and the macabre-curious nature of a teenager took him further towards downloading grizzly beheadings and close-ups of corpses belonging to - as the Al-Qaeda video said - "traitors."
Over the next decade, Mahmoud will follow in the family tradition and graduate. He will not find a job. His brother works as a lowly mechanic, and is thought of as someone "who lucked out." His sister is still unmarried. Mahmoud will mock his parents for putting stock in the Muslim Brotherhood; "they are pansies who think they can reform the system," he tells them. The clunker that is the family car is still around. He would arrive into adulthood fully aware that he is not surrounded by the trappings of glamorous success. His neighborhood, once moderately affluent, is slipping down the economic ladder as those who can afford it head out to gated suburbs with names such as "City View."
Watching TV, Mahmoud would probably catch a glimpse of President Jamal Mubarak, in Washington again, pledging his country's continuing support in the war on terror that now engulfs Egypt, the Middle East and most of Europe. Mahmoud will keep downloading jihadist footage, contemplating the day when he is lionized by Al Qaeda's propaganda as a "martyr." One day, as his father tarries at the mosque while chatting with some friends after Friday prayers, Mahmoud will be spotted by a terrorist recruiter.
Mahmoud is fully primed to become a human torpedo - targeting the West and anything associated with it. He is educated, embittered, and has no where to go in the closed political and economic system of Egypt's autocracy. All Al-Qaeda needs to do is tailor a bomb vest for him, or teach him how to make one on his own.
If you do run into Mahmoud sometime in the future, run away.
Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at email@example.com
May 31, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >